Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Trump’s personal valet, the vice president’s spokeswoman, Katie Miller, and Ivanka Trump’s personal assistant (who has been teleworking for nearly two months) all tested positive for Covid-19, illustrating the manifold threats the pandemic poses to our government. The news raises questions about the legitimacy of the White House’s own narrative about its ability to keep Americans safe, while highlighting the potential havoc the coronavirus could wreak on our government and national security.
News that the coronavirus has infiltrated the White House presents a direct threat to the administration’s narrative that it is taking the necessary measures to keep the American people safe. Earlier this week, the White House rejected the very guidelines it asked for from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection on how to safely reopen the country because the CDC’s 17-page draft was “overly prescriptive.”
Instead of relying on experts, the White House is flying blind, putting itself in charge of determining how to keep Americans safe. To make matters worse, the failure to protect the President and Vice President Mike Pence doesn’t inspire much confidence that the administration is doing everything possible to protect the rest of us. It also undercuts the President’s assertions that it’s time to reopen the country because it’s clear that new infections are a reality — even in the White House.
More directly, this news threatens the functioning of our government. White House staff regularly work in close quarters in the East and West Wings, and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Based on my experience working in a former closet in the West Wing — where I was two feet away from my closest colleagues — social distancing is not an option in the White House unless serious precautions are taken. Maintaining the six feet of distance recommended by the CDC is a luxury that staff just don’t have, absent extraordinary measures.
Staff members are also constantly interacting with each other and moving around the White House property to conduct meetings and brief their bosses. To top it off, staff regularly touch the same doorknobs or equipment, including classified and unclassified printers.
White House valets, in particular, are often within spitting distance — if not breathing distance — of the President, Vice President, security details, and the President’s family. They are expected to be available and by his side, whether it’s in the White House or onboard Air Force One. Because they are responsible for the President’s personal needs, including serving him meals or helping him get dressed, it’s hard to believe Trump when he says he had “very little personal contact” with the infected valet.
Miller would have been in regular contact with the vice president — to brief him ahead of his public events — and with senior members of the National Security Council and the rest of Pence’s office to coordinate messaging. Under normal circumstances, very little of this work is done “virtually.” Because Miller says she was asymptomatic, we don’t know how long she’s been contagious and how many people she has come into contact with.
Both Miller and the valet pose a direct threat to the health of the Trump, Pence and so many other members of the White House and supporting personnel. The risks of contagion are very real — and contagion comes with direct costs for our national security. Unchecked community spread within the White House would be a catastrophic event. An incapacitated President or vice president would represent a major vulnerability in our executive branch, as would contagion among staff, who are essential to the functioning of our government. The fact that both the valet and Miller likely had sustained contact with numerous other staffers raises the real risk that personnel critical to undertaking key national security work could be sidelined and unable to do their jobs.
While we all hope that the valet and Miller make speedy recoveries — and that infection is limited — their cases expose the problems with the White House’s approach to Covid-19 guidelines.
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White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the White House, which would start contact tracing, has “taken every single precaution to protect the president.” But the fact that personnel coming in close proximity to the President, for example, didn’t all wear masks before this incident begs the most basic question: Why not? If the fate of our government is at stake, it is hard to imagine why the White House wouldn’t take every precaution to follow basic guidelines.
Right now the White House needs to focus on crisis control — namely ensuring that the valet and Miller are treated appropriately and trying to track down anyone else who may be sick and spreading the virus. But the strategic threats that this news presents are ongoing, particularly if the White House does not take immediate steps to change their own measures to keep personnel safe.